Historical Stories on Benches in King George V Playing Field
On 18th June 1219 Melksham was granted a market charter by the King Henry III. Melksham's official recognition as a market town was commemorated 800 years later by the Town Council who installed eight new benches in King George V Playing Field. On each bench is a historical fact accompanied by a QR code that leads to further information here.
Melksham formed originally as a ford across the river Avon and a Saxon settlement. It is believed the name derives from Meolcham, “Meolc” being the old English name for milk and “ham” a village. It was always known as one of Wiltshire’s woollen towns along with Trowbridge and Bradford on Avon.
At the time of the Norman Conquest Melksham was part of a royal estate. Melksham was described in the Domesday Book in 1086 as having 8 mills, 130 acres of water meadows and 8 leagues of pasture, with a population of several hundred. Adjacent to the cultivated land was a Royal medieval forest and William I gave the local manor and lands to Britric Aloeric, a descendent of a Norman knight. In the early part of the 13th century, King John often visited Melksham Forest for hunting. The Abbess and the nuns of nearby Lacock Abbey had the right to a specified amount of wood from the forest, which resulted in the forest being almost completely destroyed by the early 17th century, although the area is still known as Melksham Forest.
In 1219 Melksham was considered important enough to be granted a Charter to hold a market every Friday and a fair on Michaelmas Day. In 1250, the market was transferred to a Tuesday and in 1491 the Prioress of Amesbury obtained a Charter for a two day fair in July. On the second day a fun fair was held and this continued until 1910 when the Home Secretary stopped it. The market continued on Tuesdays alternating with Trowbridge until the advent of the Second World War. The Market has taken place in Hurn’s Yard, The Bear Yard and Church Street Car Park. The current Tuesday Market was reinstated in Melksham in 2013.
By the middle of the 14th century Melksham was a busy weaving town, the chief product being white broadcloth. This industry provided employment for spinners, weavers, fullers and shearmen. The wool came from North Wiltshire and the Cotswolds; and the made-up cloth was sent to Blackwell Hall in London and then all over England and the Continent. By 1838 only two cloth mills remained, both operated by steam power and employing 162 workers. The last working mill, The Matravers Mill, was auctioned in 1888 and is now incorporated into the Cooper Avon Tire factory. In 1803 Charles Maggs bought a former cloth mill adjoining Spa Road and used it for making rope, matting and tarpaulins. In 1892 Benjamin Sawtell began purifying feathers for pillows and eiderdowns. Feathers were imported from all over the world and in the 1960s it was one of the largest feather firms in the country until the factory closed. Today, one of the largest employers in Melksham is Cooper Avon Tires, which started as a rubber company in Limpley Stoke, making special parts for the booming railway companies.
A hostelry existed at the site of the King’s Arms Hotel in the centre of Melksham, and was improved in c1750 when the toll road route from London was altered, resulting in stagecoaches from London passing through Melksham on their way to Bath, Bristol, Exeter and Devonport. By 1830 there were six coaches each day carrying passengers to London. The Royal Mail and the Emerald stopped at the King’s Arms, the Royal Blue and the Regulator at The Bear, opposite what is now Union Street, and the Olde Company’s coach and the White Harte coach called at both. The four coach horses were changed every eight to ten miles so there was probably stabling for about 50 horses behind these hostelries. The coaching days finished when the railway reached Chippenham around 1840 and right up to 1926 the King’s Arms had its own horses - and later a bus - to collect visitors from Melksham station.
In 1813 several local gentry who had prospered from the woollen industry, the Awdrys, the Longs, the Methuens and the Phillips were originally digging for coal when they formed the Melksham Spa Company. They had a capital of 7,000 guineas to exploit the chalybeate spring discovered in 1770 to the south of Melksham. A well more than 300 feet deep was sunk and six semi-detached boarding houses and a hotel were built. The Spa was intended to rival Bath but within a few years it had failed.
The defunct Wilts and Berks canal linking the Kennet and Avon canal with the Thames opened in 1819 and gave Melksham added importance. It ran almost through the centre of town and traces remain such as the Wharf House adjoining the hump that was the canal bridge in Spa Road, and the relics of a bridge at the junction of Forest and Sandridge roads. The canal was abandoned in 1914, and the area was redeveloped. However, there is now a Trust working to promote the reopening of the canal along its whole length, which could mean a new route being excavated around parts of Melksham and then along the River Avon through Melksham.
Melksham is well known to many members of the Royal Air Force who learnt their trade at RAF Melksham, which at its peak accommodated over ten thousand personnel. The official title of the station from when it opened in 1940 until it closed in 1965 was No.12 School of Technical Training. Many local people remember seeing aircraft on display at the annual open days, but it was never an operational flying base because it had no runway. The aircraft were used for training purposes for ground crew and technicians and were dismantled before arrival and departure. The station also housed No 10 School of Recruit Training and it averaged an intake of 100 a week of mainly National servicemen until August 1953 when the last trainees passed out and the unit closed.